While speculation mounts that JP Pietersen will be fast-tracked straight into the Springbok starting line-up for the first match of their European tour against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, former Bok wing favourite Breyton Paulse cautions against tampering immediately with the status quo in the back three.
By:Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
The strong-striding, 27-year-old Pietersen, now based with Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan, earned the last of his 48 caps in the final match of the corresponding tour in November 2012, when South Africa pipped England at Twickenham to ensure a three-game clean sweep.
At times in his career Pietersen – who will be available for the Sharks again in Super Rugby 2014 – has played so irresistibly for the Boks that many would give him the No 14 jersey for a hypothetical World XV.
But speaking to Sport24 at the launch of rugby writer Stephen Nell’s new book “Springbok Glory: Golden Moments in the Modern Era”, Paulse, who was familiar with both fullback and wing duty during his first-class career and earned 64 Bok appearances of his own between 1999 and 2007, said he would be reluctant to break up at this point the existing trio of fullback Zane Kirchner and wings Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana.
“It’s a tough decision for Heyneke (Meyer). I just think the current back three has worked well lately.
“JP brings massive experience and quality, and also his work-rate off the ball has improved over the last two or three years in my opinion.
“It goes without saying that he’s a settled sort of player who will never let any team down – he’s also got a rugby brain.
“But it will be tricky for Heyneke to make changes.
“I think that right wing is Willie’s best position; he can express himself a bit more.
“At fullback you’re a bit more limited because of cover defence needs – on the wing you get the loose trio to cover for you.
“It will be seriously tempting to start with JP against Wales but I would stick with the present back three, with JP coming on later in the game to make a difference if need be. Of course he has that X-factor for a great impact role.
“I believe the current three have settled quite nicely: Bryan’s reputation speaks for itself; he’s part of the furniture. Zane has overcome a lot of challenges and criticism to also look more at home in the last couple of games – so I wouldn’t fiddle with the continuity.”
Paulse feels this trip will be a great opportunity for Kirchner to silence his critics once and for all.
“The northern hemisphere conditions suit his game well … lots of high balls, where he’s good under them and returning kicks, and not being expected to counter as much with ball in hand given the (heavier, slower) pitches.
“You know, he’s seldom given me the impression that he does lots of things wrong; perhaps people just want a fullback to look more adventurous sometimes.
“He’ s been solid, he’s been good for the side when his main strengths have been needed.”
Although another Sharks favourite in Pat Lambie offers No 15 possibilities due to his versatility, Paulse fancies that he will predominantly feature closer to the action.
“He certainly will keep Morne (Steyn) on his toes for the flyhalf position and the good thing about Pat is that he can play both deep and flat – that variation is very important going forward.
“I’d like to see him get another start at No 10 some time on this tour, perhaps against Scotland in the middle game.
“He is playing with confidence, and behind a big, solid Bok pack he should get go-forward ball.”